Up Close: NOAA’s Jon Hare on the Search for Oil in the Gulf

NOAA’s Dr. Jon Hare was the chief scientist about the NOAA Ship Bigelow, a research vessel searching for subsea oil in the vicinity of the BP wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA’s Dr. Jon Hare was the chief scientist about the NOAA Ship Bigelow, a research vessel searching for subsea oil in the vicinity of the BP wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow is one of several NOAA vessels that has monitored the Deepwater Horizon spill site for any changes since the wellhead was capped. 

Dr. Jon Hare, a fisheries oceanographer from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), was chief scientist onboard the Bigelow when the ship was at the spill site recently. He sat down for an interview with NOAA Corps Officer Lt. Elizabeth Crapo to talk about the ship’s mission.

How does a fisheries scientist end up looking for subsurface oil?

As a fisheries oceanographer, I’m usually studying the relationship between the ocean environment and fish population dynamics. I also oversee the operational oceanography programs for NOAA’s NEFSC. Usually, we conduct six surveys per year of the Northeast Shelf from Cape Hatteras to Nova Scotia.

From the beginning of the oil spill, NOAA has been sending a number of ships to the Gulf of Mexico to assist in the response and restoration efforts. The NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow is being deployed from its home port in Newport, R.I., to conduct missions in the Gulf for a good part of July and August. The NEFSC was looking for volunteers to staff the Bigelow, and I signed on to lend my expertise.

NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow.

NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

How does the process of searching for oil work?

The capped well and natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico also produce methane and hydrogen sulfide gas, which we can detect acoustically. The Bigelow is one of the new classes of fisheries survey vessels that has been equipped with state-of-the-art fisheries acoustics devices that use sound waves to search for gas bubbles in the water column. As the ship passes over the wellhead, its acoustic geargathers data that can be used to both evaluate changes in the status of the wellhead and to develop a map of potential natural seeps.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face?

One of the main challenges was the timing. We needed to put an oceanographic cruise together in a very short amount of time and get the ship from Newport to the Gulf of Mexico, and gather the scientific equipment and scientific staff. 

The Deepwater Horizon site.

The Deepwater Horizon site.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Once the ship, officers, crew and scientists arrived in the Gulf and started operations, the next biggest challenge was working in such tight quarters— there are about 20 ships in an area with a radius of about 1,000 meters (a little more than half a mile). The ship’s officers and lookouts must maneuver around the other ships — what I call “threading the needle” — to get the data that we need from the wellhead. The officers and crew on the Bigelow are doing an excellent job.

Have you found anything interesting or unexpected since you’ve been here?

We know where the wellhead is and we’ve been over that multiple times. But for me, one of the most interesting things is that we’ve found a couple of natural seeps about 1.5 to 2 kilometers away from the wellhead. We’ve been spending many hours monitoring this outer area at night — in fact, the other evening we found a very persistent seep about 6 kilometers to the southeast of the wellhead.

What would you say is the most important thing you would want the public to know about the work you are doing here?

It’s a true team effort. The Bigelow has 37 people onboard, all working together to collect the data NOAA needs to assess the conditions at the wellhead. NOAA has had a number of research vessels working in the area and we will continue working out here as long as we need to. NOAA logo.